Ammiel Hirsch

American Jews are partners in the destiny of our people

Fifty years after the Yom Kippur War, Israel faces a new existential threat and We must continue to make our voices heard

It was 50 years ago, to the day, according to the Hebrew calendar, but I remember it like yesterday.

“Yom Kippur is over,” the military officer bellowed from the street below, an odd urgency in his voice.

Three months earlier, my parents had bundled the four of us out of our Bethesda home one last time. The house I grew up in – that filled me with so many sweet memories of a happy childhood – no longer belonged to us. The new owners already had the keys. They were counting down the hours till our departure. That afternoon, strangers would be walking around my bedroom – as if they owned the place! All memory-making moments of our rich family experiences would cease instantly. New memories would be forged here, but not for us. No memories are more precious than those of childhood. There is nothing healthier, loftier, or more powerful than good memories from our parents’ home. They last a lifetime.

Years later, while attending a convention in Washington, D.C., I took a few hours to return to our house. It was all wrong. They had painted it a garish shade of yellow. The nerve of those people – to ruin our façade. Plus, I don’t know how they did it, but it seemed to me that they shrunk the entire neighborhood. Everything was smaller. The yard where we played football was now hardly big enough to throw a pass. The house, itself, was like something out of “The Three Little Pigs.” You could huff and puff and blow it all down.

My mother, especially, loved that house. Growing up in Stalinist Siberia, she, her parents and three siblings crammed into a freezing one-room communist barrack when food was so scarce people regularly died on the streets, and the crazed regime was killing more Soviets than Nazis my mother thought that America was as close to paradise as one could get on earth. She never took for granted American liberty and prosperity. The abundance of everything seemed miraculous to her. I remember how she delighted in a simple piece of bread and butter. It was really more butter than bread. She would slather a hillock of fresh butter on one small slice, and that humble indulgence was delectably sufficient for her. Until her last breath, my mother never ceased paying homage to this land of freedom and opportunity.

One last time, we piled into the red station wagon and drove off. We were on our way to New York, and from there, to Jerusalem, the sacred city nestled on the foothills of eternity: From the Golden Land to the Promised Land. From the hill to the mount, as my father would later write. He meant, from Capitol Hill, the center of the American empire, where he had spent the past 11 years, to Mount Zion, the place from which the moral law would redound, in the city where the word of God would spread. For my father, there was no greater drama, no worthier endeavor, than to actively participate in the restoration and revivification of the eternal people returning to its ancestral home.

The words of the ancient Psalmist we chanted every Shabbat around the dinner table perfectly reflected his mindset: “Be’shuv Adonai et shivat Tzion hayinu ke’cholmim – az yimaleh schok pinu, u’leshonenu reena. Bo yavo ve’reena.”

“When God restores us to Zion we shall be like dreamers. Our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Return home in exaltation.”

That was my father. The restoration of the Jews to Zion was like a dream for him. He exalted in every aspect of the revived Jewish state. I remember how he taught himself Hebrew by systematically going through the dictionary, diligently marking down unfamiliar words, and then using them in conversation. He wanted to speak idiomatic Hebrew and even inquired with native Israelis about swear words, which he would throw in from time to time with family and close work colleagues in heavily accented Anglicized Hebrew. It would always crack them up. But for my father, even Hebrew expletives were somehow miraculous.

My mother was much more grounded. She had survived both Stalin and Hitler. She had seen things up close that my father, who grew up in Cleveland, could hardly imagine. As a teenager, she landed in Israel from Bergen Belsen on the first boat to arrive in the newly declared state of Israel – May 15, 1948. The local press sent photographers to document the historic event. After my mother died, rummaging through her scrapbooks, we found original newspaper photos of her, still on the boat, waiting to disembark – a petite 19-year-old Russian beauty, laughing at the cameras, a sense of anticipation and youthful adventure on her face. A trained nurse, she was whisked away to the border and took part in the War of Independence. For the third time before her 20th birthday, my mother came face to face with those who sought her destruction. Six thousand Israelis – a full one percent of the population – were killed in the fight for independence.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mother, who often went along with her husband’s romantic idealism, only reluctantly agreed to move to Israel. She knew all too well the dark souls of Jew-haters. She took the Arabs at their word: if they said they wanted to destroy the Jewish state, she felt they meant it, and would eventually succeed. My mother was not at all sanguine about Israel’s military prowess, despite the lightning victory six years earlier in the Six-Day War that expanded Israel’s territory threefold, and its self-confidence tenfold. She mistrusted politicians and was wary of the ambitions of generals who sought glory at the expense of the teenagers they drafted. She was haunted throughout the five years that my brother and I served in the IDF, both in combat units.

As a soldier.

And my mother feared that if somehow the Arabs wouldn’t get us, we ourselves would self-destruct. She felt that there was something about the Jews that made it nearly impossible for us to live together.

We settled in Jerusalem in early summer, 1973. Our apartment on Jabotinsky Street would not be ready for a year, so my parents rented a flat not far away in a predominantly modern Orthodox building. I spent the summer studying Hebrew in preparation for ninth grade. School started on September 2. I could write an entire book on what that was like: a 14-year-old American immigrant whose second-grade Hebrew skills had improved over the summer to perhaps fourth-grade level; a teenager who wouldn’t have understood high school physics anyway, but the task made ever more difficult because I didn’t even know the Hebrew word for “circle” – thrown into a sea of 200 aggressive, independent-minded, highly-intelligent Israeli ninth-graders, who had rarely met any Americans at all. It was still 1973: It is hard for me to believe now, but Israel was only 25 years old when we arrived – a mere 11 years older than I was – and a third of its current population. I was a novelty. Few Americans, or immigrants at all, were making their way to Israel.

The holidays arrived late that year; Rosh Hashanah was at the end of September. We attended services at the Jerusalem campus of the Hebrew Union College, led by its then-dean, Dr. Ezra Spicehandler. There were Shabbat and holiday family visits: my grandmother, aunts, uncles – now gone – many cousins whom I still see often, conversations flowing, and mountains of food. The fruit back then came straight off the tree – the kind we rarely see anymore, their luscious juices erupting at first bite, heralding the unique fertility of the Holy Land.

Va’ya’shuvu mi’tur ha’aretz” – “and the scouts returned from inspecting the land, and they came to Moses, Aaron and the entire people. ‘It is a land flowing with milk and honey – look at its fruit.’” They showed the people the figs and the pomegranates. It took two men to carry a cluster of grapes. According to our sages, the fruit of the land of Israel was so sweet that it had to be eaten with salt.

By October 1973, the sword of Damocles that hung over Israel for its first 20 years seemed to have been lifted. People were convinced that Israel was far more powerful than the combination of those who sought to destroy her. They were sure that if their enemies ever made an aggressive move, they would be humiliated again, as they had six years earlier.

The Day of Atonement began at sundown of October 5. If you have never been to Israel during Yom Kippur, it should be on your bucket list. All traffic stops. There are no cars on the road, no public transportation, everything shuts down, including shops, schools, public institutions, and back then, radio and television. It is a complete day of rest, introspection and atonement, broadly respected by all segments of Israeli society.

Bitter mourning, searing pain

At 1:50 in the afternoon, resting in the apartment in the interlude between morning and afternoon services, I heard a vehicle honking madly from outside the building, puncturing the calm sanctity of the holy day. Our Orthodox neighbors were enraged by this violation of the most sacred hours of the year in the holiest city on earth. A woman next door went out to her balcony. I remember little details about her – funny how memory works. She wore a headscarf and was dressed in her bathrobe and slippers. She shrieked at the driver in the military jeep below: “Ma ata osseh?” – “What are you doing?” – “Yom Kippur hayom!” – “It is Yom Kippur today!”

“Giveret,” he shouted from below – “Madam” – “Ze kfar lo Yom Kippur” – “Yom Kippur is over” – “get your husband down here now – our unit has been called up for emergency military duty.”

Ten minutes later, at 2:00 p.m. on October 6, 1973, air raid sirens pierced the veil of holiness. I had never heard an air raid siren before. It wailed, it moaned, it screamed as if to forewarn that the weeks to come would entail bitter mourning and searing pain. The Yom Kippur war had started.

There were no detailed reports of the raging battles. Radio broke its holiday curfew to announce that both the Syrians and the Egyptians had launched a surprise attack – and bulletins were filled with coded directions of where mobilized military units were gathering. But no one on the home front knew that the Gates of Gehenna were blasted open. Everyone assumed that the pattern of the Six-Day War would repeat – and Israel’s vaunted military would crush the delusional invaders. We would hear about the great victories by tomorrow morning.

Since practically all the fighting-age men were mobilized, we high school students picked up the slack as best we could. Classes were canceled. Our school organized groups of us to work in key industries that kept the economy running. For the subsequent three weeks, I worked at the big supermarket in the town center, the Supersol, and at the Angel Bakery a few miles away.

The only workers left in these places were older men past fighting age – and us, teenagers still a few years from being drafted – who schlepped bags, stored bins and sorted boxes.

Soon, the funerals started: older brothers of my classmates killed in Sinai or on the Golan Heights. Hundreds of wounded returning daily from the front. There was hardly a family untouched by sorrow. My cousin, a tank commander, was severely wounded. I remember our family driving down to the hospital near Tel Aviv during visiting hours. Fuel was rationed. You could drive only three days a week. Every vehicle posted a sticker on its windshield that showed what days it was allowed on the road. Headlights were darkened to make it harder on encroaching enemy aircraft to spot and bomb cars at night.

The war was a disaster. There were monumental failures in nearly every sector of the defense establishment. Israel’s vaunted intelligence services were caught unawares. Ammunition storehouses were empty. Egypt had 100,000 troops and 2,200 tanks arrayed on the Suez Canal against 100 Israeli tanks and 500 infantry soldiers. On the Golan Heights, Syrians outnumbered Israelis by at least eight to one. There was a day in the war when Syrian tanks looked over the Sea of Galilee, the entire north of Israel at their mercy. All they had to do was roll in. There were no Israeli units that could stop them. They hesitated, thinking that the army that routed them six years earlier had set a trap. By the time they gained their senses, it was too late.

Eventually, the IDF turned the tide on both fronts. It was a testament to the extraordinary ingenuity of its commanding officers – and the astonishing courage, determination and resilience of its soldiers. “In the days when heaven was falling, the hour when earth’s foundations fled, their shoulders held the sky suspended.” But the cost was staggering: 2,600 dead, 12,000 wounded – the economy in shambles and a traumatized population that has not fully recovered to this day. All of the previous wars were foreshadowed by weeks of intensifying pressure and fear. There was time to prepare. The Yom Kippur War exploded like a thunderclap out of the clear blue sky. The gaping trauma it left behind was in direct proportion to the boundless self-confidence preceding it.

Looking back, in so many respects, the past 50 years have been a spectacular success. Israel’s recovery was remarkable. She is incomparably more secure now than 50 years ago. A full-scale war between the armies of Israel and her neighbors is hard to imagine. Two of these countries, Egypt and Jordan, have peace agreements with Israel. The other, Syria, is a basket-case. And more distanced Arab and Muslim states have entered into the Abraham Accords, with realistic prospects of yet more to come.

No other people in the world did what we did – surviving under the volcano, and even thriving. Israelis were still living in tents when my mother landed on the seashore. The state absorbed millions of impoverished desperate refugees, some from the East with nothing but the clothes on their backs, others from the West with nothing but the tattoos on their arms. Look what this remnant has accomplished in the years since. It was unimaginable in 1973, when I arrived in Jerusalem, that Israel would be so prosperous, secure and mostly first-world. I remember my parents asking visitors from America to bring jars of peanut butter because Israelis had never heard of it. You can get anything you want now in Israel.

Look what Jews can accomplish when we have a sense of national purpose and social cohesion, even during periods of intense political disagreement. Look at what this tiny country has done; look at the astonishing advances of the past half-century, winning worldwide admiration and even grudging respect from our enemies.

Unresolved grievances

But the past 50 years have also revealed and intensified unresolved flaws, failings and frailties.

The most severe is what my mother feared all those years ago: There is something about the Jews that makes it difficult for us to live together. We have so many diverse communities with distinctive historical experiences; so many different philosophies of Jewish life; so many remnants brought together from the four corners of the earth – there are so many external pressures on Israel, dramatically raising the stakes of every policy debate – that this experiment in Jewish self-determination is always fragile, always ripe for dissension and discord. The speed required in sewing the state together in 1948, and the exigencies of security, left unresolved grievances that still erupt in periods of social and political stress.

Moreover, have you noticed that we, Jews, are an excitable people? We have a tendency towards fiery passion, blistering intensity and fierce conviction. We like ourselves this way, but it makes finding unity and compromise that much more difficult. We haven’t really changed in three millennia. A complete breakdown of national unity was the fundamental cause of the dissolution of the united kingdom of David and Solomon, and the Hasmonean state, nearly a thousand years later. Both collapsed in their eighth decade – roughly the age Israel is now. Jewish communities are always at risk of internal dissension at best, and at worst, complete ruptures.

The modern state of Israel, like its predecessors, embodies these competing and often contradictory tendencies of our national personality – our impulse towards unity, our potential for surpassing greatness, and our inclination towards destructive discord. Knowing this, Israeli governments mostly exercised responsible and enlightened leadership. They kept extremists out of their coalitions. They recognized that maintaining social cohesion was an existential imperative; that you couldn’t push the envelope too far, either to the right or the left. The military is the people’s army. You cannot separate social morale from military morale. They are the same people. Thus, by and large, Israeli leaders were cautious, and avoided recklessness and extremes.

Debate, disagreement, disputation – what the rabbis called machloket – is at the center of Jewish tradition, and a key reason why Jews do so well in modern democracies. Intellectual and political pluralism is in our DNA. Autocrats and dictators fear dissent. Free peoples cherish debate and welcome disagreement. We believe that when communities and ideologies argue with each other openly in the free marketplace of ideas, it is a sign of strength, not weakness. Up to the point where we begin to view those with whom we disagree not as ideological opponents, but mortal enemies who threaten our very way of life. Social disintegration is sure to follow.

We have seen enough in Israel to cause grave concern. It is not only the unprecedented weekly protests of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who had never taken to the streets before. More ominously, it is the social turmoil, economic uncertainty, the degrading of the IDF: the hundreds of fighter pilots, among the best in the world; the elite combat soldiers; the thousands of reservists who are no longer volunteering. The rage, the unwillingness or inability to listen and hear the pain of the other, signals the potential catastrophic rupture of social cohesion. And this is an existential threat. Nothing remotely similar has unfolded in Israel’s history.

First and foremost, it is the task of the Israeli government to take the necessary steps to restore the fractured unity and lower the flames of animus, a task made more difficult than ever, given that it was the government that precipitated the breakdown in the first place, and exacerbates it daily. “It is easy to drop stones in the wells, but who shall get them out?” The composition of the current coalition was unimaginable 50 years ago. The past half-century has seen the entrenchment of radical, extremist and arrogant strands of Judaism, granted disproportionate influence and political power.

I despise extremism. It corrodes the free spirit and democratic fiber of a nation. Most of us don’t really know what to do with zealots, because they do not respond to reason, and thus, cannot be swayed with better arguments. Extremists never change their minds, and never change the subject. Zealotry destroys everything good about society. There can be no prosperity, no arts, no letters, no industry, no discovery, no modernity, without liberty and democracy.

The role of American Jews

What is our responsibility? What is the role of American Jews?

Israeli citizens elect their own representatives, and they are the ones who determine the country’s policies. Not us. Still, we have a voice. We are partners in the destiny of our people. We are covenanted and in eternal commitment one with the other. “Kol Yisrael arevein ze ba’zeh” – “all Jews are responsible one for the other.” Partnership and mutual responsibility impose on the parties an obligation to speak their minds and to share their concerns.

I have no illusions that our voice will sway the outcome. If the domestic turmoil, the mass rallies, the increasingly shrill warnings of Israel’s leading economists, the national and international banking industry, the labor unions, Israel’s medical community, its legal and judicial establishment, its world-renowned universities, the upper echelons of Israel’s security establishment warning of the damage already done to the cohesion and battle-readiness of the IDF, the opposition of the American and most Western administrations – if these did not change the Israeli government’s mind, surely, our voice will not.

Nonetheless, for whatever influence we may have and, more importantly, for our own sense of self-worth and self-dignity, we will continue to voice our clear and unreserved moral resistance to extreme elements of the Israeli government. When our children ask us 20 years from now, “What did you do, how did you respond to this world Jewish emergency?” we will at least be able to say that we were unambiguous in our statements, unwavering in our values, and unyielding in our resolve:

We will never excuse or rationalize Jewish supremacists, extremists, homophobes, theocrats and religious fundamentalists. They do not speak for us. They do not represent us. They appall us. They distort Judaism and are an embarrassment to the Jewish people. They practice a kind of idolatry; a fixation on a few narrow statements in our tradition, often taken out of context, the effect of which is to distract from, and even contravene, the overall spirit of Judaism. The highest urgency for all of us – including, especially, our modern Orthodox friends – is to diminish the influence these arrogant, puffed-chested ultra-nationalists and ultra-religious radicals have over Israel and the Jewish world; to push them back from the center of the political process – back to where they were for the past 75 years, before the recent elections.

At the same time, I urge you to resist the impulse some may have to shrug your shoulders and turn your back. This community will never walk away – nor should you. We have an existential stake in the well-being and character of Israel. The Jewish state is the Jewish people’s supreme creation of our era. It has injected the Jewish people back into history for the first time in two millennia. It has granted a persecuted abandoned nation dignity, responsibility and agency. The majority of the world’s Jews live in Israel. We cannot long sustain a strong, vital and dynamic American Jewish community if we are alienated from the majority of our people.

What then? If you are frustrated; if you are worried; if you are anxious; if you are angry – do something productive about it. Support in every way you know how the forces in Israel that reflect your values. The stakes are enormous. This is a profound historical Jewish moment. Take inspiration from the sea of flags flooding Israeli streets for months on end, and the tenacity of the flag-bearers from all sectors of Israeli society – right and left, secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardi – expressing the deepest love of country. Support them. Strengthen them. Hold them close to your hearts. Keep faith with this Israel.

I hope that the crisis will eventually produce positive outcomes. Crises are also opportunities to heal long-festering wounds. I hope Israelis use the time to recommit to a social compact based upon the rights and dignities it specified in its Declaration of Independence. I hope that the intense animosities opened up in Israeli society will ease through a deep and sincere process of social and constitutional repair, garnering a broad consensus among the Israeli people. I hope that the remaining responsible members of the Israeli government will come to their senses.

And I hope that Jews here in the West use this opportunity to recommit to those inspirational humanitarian, democratic, Jewish and Zionist principles that capture the imagination of the Jewish people, and the respect of so many around the world. The state of Israel is the most miraculous place on earth. Do not take its existence or its accomplishments for granted. A Jewish state is a rare historical event. The last time we had a state was 2,000 years ago. There were several days in Tishrei, five decades ago, that we feared it would all come crashing down. We stand taller here, because of what our brothers and sisters do over there. By finding a place in the sun for the Jewish people, Israel has granted every Jew a place in the sun.

One of the great spiritual moments of my life was standing atop Mount Nebo in Jordan in the early 1990s. It was one of those few transformational moments that take our breath away because they come unexpectedly – out of the blue – invading our souls without warning or preparation.

From the top of the mountain, I recited the biblical verses in my mind:

“Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo…opposite Jericho, and God showed him the entire land: Gilead as far as Dan; all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, the whole land of Judah, as far as the Western Sea; the Negev and the Plain – the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees. And God said to him, ‘This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I will assign it to your offspring. I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.’”

For 2,000 years, the Jewish people has seen this place from beyond, but were not able to enter.

Standing on Mount Nebo, you could see what Moses saw on the day he died: From Gilead to Dan, from the Valley of Jericho to the Negev; from the majestic hills of Judah to the barrenness of the Dead Sea. On a clear day, you can even see Jerusalem.

“Va’ya’re’hu Adonai et kol Haaretz” – “and God showed Moses the entire land that he would not enter.

The foremost biblical commentator, Rashi, understood this passage to mean that Moses looked down upon the entire future of the land. He saw all of Jewish history before him.

From the top of the mountain, the Promised Land at my feet, I could sense the cycle of Jewish history – all the trials and tribulations, the triumphs, torments and tragedies of our past from ancient to modern times. I saw the slaves in Egypt, the great deliverance, the establishment of Jerusalem by King David, the First Temple burned to the ground and the exile of our people; the return of our people from Babylon and the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple; I saw the second temple burned to the ground, and the second exile of our people that lasted 19 centuries.

In my mind’s eye, I could see with vivid clarity the saviors of Judaism – the great rabbis of old; I saw the medieval sages, the Jewish communities of Spain, Northern Europe and America. I saw the persecution, the pogroms, the ovens. I saw the return of the exiles, a trickle at first, soon becoming a raging torrent of collective purpose. I saw my mother land on the first boat after the state was declared. I saw the miracle of the deliverance of the Six-Day War.

I saw our family’s arrival in Jerusalem, 50 years ago, and the devastation of the Yom Kippur War three months later. I saw the soldiers and commanders of the IDF snatch victory from the jaws of defeat through the sheer force of their tenacity, will and courage. I saw the recovery from that trauma – so typically and magnificently Jewish – that created this wonder of a country.

Va’ya’mat sham Moshe, eved Adonai, be’eretz Moav al pi Adonai” – “And Moses, the servant of God, died through the kiss of God.

“Lo cha-ha-ta eino, ve’lo nass lecho” – “he was 120 years old, but his eyes were undimmed, his vigor unabated.

This is my hope; this is my prayer – this is my conviction: That our eyes remain undimmed and our national vigor unabated.

About the Author
Named among New York's "Most Influential Religious Leaders" by the New York Observer, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is the senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. City & State New York magazine named him "the borough's most influential voice" for Manhattan's more than 300,000 Jews. He previously served as executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
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